Buchstein: Democracy and lottery: Revisited

Ten years ago Hubertus Buchstein pinned some high hopes on the application of sortition in government (“Reviving Randomness for Political Rationality”, Constellations 17(3), 2010):

[T]he horizon for further development of randomly selected councils boils down to two options. One can either stay on the beaten path and continue working with the experiments and projects described above with their non-binding status. That would amount to supporting commendable projects instructive about democracy, which admittedly remain mere ornaments of the political system’s routines, projects that participants expect to have little tangible influence, thus engendering the problems of motivation. Or the standing of randomly selected councils could be reinforced; their integration in existing institutional arrangements with a clearly defined and binding set of competencies would form the culminating point of such a reform policy.

There is much to be said for the fact that random selection, if used wisely, could prove a useful complement to the procedures in place until now. And if we have the courage to make such changes, there is reason to believe that judicious integration of components of lotteries in modern democracies can contribute to a reform policy model, relevant beyond nation-states and the example of the EU, for coping with the institutional demands of the spatial transformation of democracy beyond the framework of the nation-state currently on the agenda. Resorting to chance in such a program of policy for democracy is not an expression of resignation or fatalism, but instead of democratic experimentalism striving to increase democracy’s potential for rationality.

A decade later, Buchstein is singing a very different tune (“Democracy and lottery: Revisited”, Constalleations 26(3), 2019). Buchstein now opens his article with some accusations directed toward sortition advocates and with some skeptical questions:
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Lafont: Democracy without shortcuts

Cristina Lafont is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University whose research is about normative questions in political philosophy concerning democracy and citizen participation, global governance, human rights, religion and politics.

Lafont is the author a new book, Democracy without shortcuts, devoting a fair amount of attention to allotted citizen juries.

This book articulates a participatory conception of deliberative democracy that takes the democratic ideal of self-government seriously. It aims to improve citizens’ democratic control and vindicate the value of citizens’ participation against conceptions that threaten to undermine it. The book critically analyzes deep pluralist, epistocratic, and lottocratic conceptions of democracy. Their defenders propose various institutional “shortcuts” to help solve problems of democratic governance such as overcoming disagreements, citizens’ political ignorance, or poor-quality deliberation. However, it turns out that these shortcut proposals all require citizens to blindly defer to actors over whose decisions they cannot exercise control. Implementing such proposals would therefore undermine democracy. Moreover, it seems naïve to assume that a community can reach better outcomes “faster” if it bypasses the beliefs and attitudes of its citizens. Unfortunately, there are no “shortcuts” to making a community better than its members. The only road to better outcomes is the long, participatory road that is taken when citizens forge a collective will by changing one another’s hearts and minds. However difficult the process of justifying political decisions to one another may be, skipping it cannot get us any closer to the democratic ideal. Starting from this conviction, the author defends a conception of democracy “without shortcuts.” This conception sheds new light on long-standing debates about the proper scope of public reason, the role of religion in politics, and the democratic legitimacy of judicial review. It also proposes new ways to unleash the democratic potential of institutional innovations such as deliberative minipublics.

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Grandjean: Sortition is apolitical and in-egalitarian

An op-ed in LaLibre.be by Geoffrey Grandjean, teaching fellow at the University of Liège and director of the Institut de la Décision publique. Original in French. Published 03/12/2019.

Forming a citizen assembly using sortition in order to reinvigorate democracy is a fashionable idea. Nevertheless, it appears to me to be erroneous. There are preferable alternatives.

Sortition has come back into fashion. Political representatives, sways by a series of experts, are now seeing sortition as a way to reinvigorate democracy and maybe, for some, to finally realize the democratic dream through statistical sampling. Instrumental reasoning will win over ideological debates because an allotted assembly – or even a partially allotted assembly – is synonymous with democracy.

However, recourse to sortition as a method for selecting assembly members is profoundly apolitical and in-egalitarian idea. There are three reasons for this.

More than a link of trust

First, behind sortition there are mistaken, and even dangerous, assumptions about the functioning of democracy. On the one hand, in critiquing the existing representative system, the advocates of sortition respond to a sentiment of general distrust by proposing a mechanism that does not rely on trust. The electoral link of trust between represented and representatives is replaced by a probabilistic selection technique of cold calculation. In this regard, in Les @nalyses du CRISP en ligne, Vincent de Coorebyter asserts that the tendency to create citizen parliaments consists of “an abandonment, pure and simple, of sovereignty in favor of an assembly selected without us”.

On the other hand, when we look at the different proposals for allotted assemblies, they are often designed as having short terms. In fact, citizens are convened for a single day, or a week at most. This type of proposal translates to short-termism and the ephemerality, unless the allotted citizens become full-fledged parliamentarians. Taking a public decision takes time, even in our digital societies. Fundamentally, the advocates of sortition drain away, through the procedure of selection of assemblies, what is the heart of political decisions – the depth and intensity of debate of ideas which requires trust and requires time. Therefore, sortition reveals itself as apolitical.
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Sortition in the New Yorker, again

For the second time in less than a year, sortition is mentioned in the New Yorker. Last time, it was merely an off-handed comment. This time, sortition is front and center. Nathan Heller’s article is built around an interview with Hélène Landemore. Alexander Guerrero also gets quoted.

Landemore’s ideal is participative, but she seems to be working with a rather loose concept for her proposals:

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out.

As evidence that open democracy can work in large[…,] culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change.

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Dean, Boswell and Smith: Deliberative systems design

A post on the LSE website by Rikki Dean, John Boswell, and Graham Smith introducing a recent paper of theirs is a very useful and provocative piece.

One example of the post’s value is its ability to describe the systemic and inherent problems that are involved in the creation of a democratic process, seemingly without either using those problems manipulatively as a way to justify the oligarchical character of the existing system or falling back on the cliched feel-good formulas of leadership, participation, empowerment, etc.:

In our recent paper in Political Studies, we take a pioneering case of such a systems-oriented approach to democratic innovation – the NHS Citizen initiative – and explore how it played out in practice. Did this approach mitigate the aforementioned perennial problems of institutionalisation? And did it create new problems?

NHS Citizen was a participatory initiative launched by the appointed Executive Board of NHS England. Echoing the systemic emphasis on the distribution of functions across settings, the eventual design consisted of several interacting parts categorised into three broad stages – called Discover, Gather and Assembly – each of which had its own function.

There was initial enthusiasm both from participants and from the Board for this exciting new form of innovation. However, over time, a series of obstacles emerged, and the initiative for all intents and purposes shut down less than three years into its run. The way the process developed over the period demonstrated the ever-present difficulty for participatory organisation to connect both with public space and empowered space.

For the first Assembly, the agenda-setting process was not fully operational, meaning the Assembly dealt with issues that largely reflected the Board’s concerns. The Board were very positive about this first Assembly. Once Gather was better established, it genuinely did shift the agenda so that is was more reflective of civil society concerns. However, this culminated in the Board losing faith in NHS Citizen and choking off funding for the process. In addition, an unanticipated effect of the separation into different parts was that some of the participants in the earlier stages were unhappy about being prevented from taking part in the Assembly, which planned to use random selection. Their rebellion in the end forced a change to the selection mechanism for the Assembly. NHS Citizen thus pioneered some promising practices for better connecting deliberative assemblies to civil society, but this was at the cost of institutionalising some irresolvable tensions.

The first meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland takes place this weekend

Gareth Jones writes in Third Force News:

A new era for democracy in Scotland is set to begin this weekend

The first meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland is being held this weekend (26 and 27 October), with 100 people taking part in a unique project that will help shape Scotland’s constitutional future.

The assembly, convened by David Martin and Kate Wimpress, has recruited people from across Scotland who are representative of the wider public as a whole to consider three key questions for the nation.

These are: What kind of country are we seeking to build?; How can we best overcome the challenges the challenges that Scotland and the world faces, including those arising from Brexit?; and What further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?

The members were recruited through a process of random selection to broadly reflect the adult population of Scotland in terms of geography, age, gender, ethnic group, educational qualifications, limiting long term conditions/disability and political attitudes towards Scottish independence, the UK’s membership of the EU and Scottish Parliament voting preferences.
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First German National Citizens’ Assembly on DemoPart: the Rise of the “Alloted Citizen”

On September 28 in Leipzig, “Phase 2” of the first ever German citizens’ assembly “Bürgerrat Demokratie” concluded its second and last weekend of deliberation on whether and how to “complete or improve [ergänzen]” Germany’s representative democracy “with elements of direct democracy or citizen participation.” On November 15, a day dubbed “Tag für die Demokratie,” the 160 participants, together with 100s more from the “regional conferences” from Phase 1, will ceremoniously present their recommendations to the President of the Bundestag, Dr Wolfgang Schäuble. I was present in Leipzig on all four days of the assembly as observer along with a few researchers, journalists, and an evaluation team from Goethe University’s “Democracy Innovation” lab. A camera crew filmed the entire event, including the small group discussion at one of the tables. The documentary will be released sometime in 2020.

This was a civil society initiative prompted by the “Grand Coalition” [GroKo] agreement between the SPD and CDU/CSU. Article 13 (pg 136) of that agreement includes a promise to research (via an expert commission) the possibility that “our precious representative parliamentary democracy could be completed with elements of direct democracy or citizen participation.” Nearly two years later, that expert commission has still not even begun to materialize. Seizing the opportunity, a civil society initiative called Mehr Demokratie (more democracy) raised money and organized this even in “four phases” with the help of two institutes that run participatory fora for local and regional governments and organizations: Nexus and Ifok. Of high interest to “sortinistas” will be this brochure about “Losverfahren” (procedure by lot) also handed out to the participants last Saturday at the end of the assembly.
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